Presidents across the broad spectrum of American history have often walked a fine line when it comes to their oversight and management of the criminal justice system.
That realm is of course vast and sprawling. Moreover, it is rife with complexity and a lightning rod for controversy and social division.
To wit: A wide swath of the electorate readily and persistently embraces tough-on-crime polices, while legions of dissenters routinely embrace material reform measures. The former camp fears laxity in enforcement and an ever-constant potential of spiking criminal activity, whereas advocates for change insist that too-quick-to-punish outcomes and a punitive approach generally are hugely harmful in American life.
Prospective and later-elected U.S. presidents must always deal intimately with that disconnect, often gingerly espousing positions at one moment that they later modify or even reverse.
This much is clear: The country is currently in reform mode, with bipartisan support in recent years evidencing a receptivity to change in many criminal law policies and outcomes. Much about the long-tenured War on Crime and War on Drugs is now widely viewed as being overly harsh and even recidivist in nature. Mandatory minimum sentencing for some nonviolent offenders facing criminal charges for the first time is a case in point.
The current presidential administration and justice reform
Recently elected President Biden enters office with an interesting mixed history concerning the justice system. A recent NPR article cites hopes concerning broad reform measures that might be enacted during Biden’s POTUS tenure. It specifically underscores that his pro-reform rhetoric “has excited longtime advocates for reform.”
Many of those same people also acknowledge, though, that Biden was an early and persistent supporter of harsh sentencing laws and lock-up policies.
Still, the overall reformist sentiment is positive, even if guardedly so.
Where criminal justice reformers think Biden might act
There is a strong sense of collective optimism surrounding the potential for material reforms to ensue during the current presidential tenure. Here are some things that advocates hope will materialize in a big way:
- Cutting back on long incarceration terms imposed pursuant to mandatory minimum rules guiding prosecutors and judges
- Heightened focus on early-intervention drug programs and other community-based strategies operating as alternatives to confinement
- Material inroads made on closing down for-profit private prisons
- Meaningful financial and other help extended to ex-prisoners seeking to reintegrate into their communities
- Revisiting of select policies (e.g., sentencing variances in crimes involving powder versus crack cocaine) that have led to sentencing disparities for different racial groups
The current POTUS team is obviously still in the early innings of its governing mandate. Criminal justice reformers are closely watching its moves and intent on holding it to reform-tied promises it has made.